Could you have survived 1950s Baltimore?
To the Editor:
I am writing this letter in the hope that you will read it and understand how Baltimore people survived tough times.
My mother passed away March 30, 2008, at the age of 97. Born on Valentine’s Day, 1911, her heart was as big as a heart could be. We lived at 112 S. Chapel St. in a small, four-room house with a toilet in the backyard. My mother had 11 children of her own, plus three younger brothers that she raised. She also legally adopted her great-granddaughter.
Times were tough, and everyone had to help. My father worked on an ash truck for Baltimore City. My mother would go to different neighborhoods to scrub marble steps for whatever they would pay her. All her kids were with her as she went door to door, not asking for donations, but for work. The older boys worked in grocery stores; the girls baby-sat; the younger boys shined shoes at corner bars. Everyone earned in some way.
Sometimes, money was really scarce. My mother would send us around to the corner grocery store to get 15 cents’ worth of bologna (sliced thin), a loaf of bread and a pack of brown gravy. She somehow fed all of us.
Other times she would send us around to the church rectory—what the priest didn’t eat, they put in containers for us to take home.
Later on, she purchased a wooden set of curtain stretchers with hundreds of small nails in them. Wearing a 10-cent pair of glasses from the 5 & 10 cent store on Broadway, and working until 2 or 3 a.m., she would do table cloths, curtains or scarves. She did all the curtains for the nuns of St. Michael’s Church. Sometimes her fingers would bleed, but she kept going.
She would get up early in the morning, put wood and coal in the pot-belly stove, and toast bread around the sides to make us toast and jelly sandwiches. She would wash us one-by-one around the kitchen “zink” because we had no bathtub or shower.
I remember her marching us down Pratt St. to the Goodwill store. For about $2 to $2.50 total, all eight boys got “new” shoes. She volunteered at the #23 School on Wolfe St., helping the teachers serve meals or handing out supplies.
She later sold codfish cakes (coddies), cookies and snowballs outside of our house. She knew how to make an honest dollar. She never complained, but bragged that she had two sons in the Marines, two in the Navy, and two that were Baltimore City police officers. We survived because of this amazing mother.
God called her home because her work was done and she needed a rest. God bless her for who she was and what she taught us. Everyone called her “Amazing Grace,” the perfect name for her—she was amazing.
I feel good about letting people know about the hard times and how to survive them. I’m 71 now, and know how lucky I am.
Thank you for reading.
James A. Vain, Bel Air